A whole new world of Indian finger food

A newlywed combines the exotic flavors of her native India with Western elegance to create appetizers to please palates of both worlds.

Growing up, I remember only a few weekends when my family had the house to ourselves. Even if we weren't hosting visiting family and friends from far-off places, most of our Saturday nights were spent sharing plenty of succulent morsels of food with local friends who, like us, needed little excuse to feast. My parents, like most Indians, love to shower people with their hospitality and feed them till they're almost ready to burst.

We Indians are known for treating guests with the utmost care and generosity, and one way we achieve this is through our food. Food holds a very special place in any Indian household. No festivity is complete without a table laid end-to-end with colorful dishes.

It's no wonder, then, that out of all the rooms in a home, many Indians take the most pride in their kitchens. Truly, we love food, and our life surrounds it. Our conversations, no matter how they begin, always seem to divert to the food related to the topic in question. A simple wedding announcement would automatically lead to the designing of the menu. Even meeting up with a long-lost friend would be done over lunch or dinner, over food the friends could later reminisce about.

While our meals may be laced with rich aromatic flavors, what I look forward to the most at any Indian-hosted party is the platter of appetizers. Indian hors d'oeuvres range from savory street food, like the most loved samosas (deep-fried pastry filled with potatoes) and pakoras (spiced fritters), to the famous tandoori tikkas (marinated meat grilled in a clay oven). Appetizers may be steamed, grilled, or fried. They come in various sizes and shapes. Some can be daintily picked by two fingers, while others require a spoon and lots of napkins. No matter what form, each Indian hors d'oeuvres has something unique to offer.

Anyone who has ever walked along the streets of any major Indian city – be it Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), or Bangalore – will attest to the fact that no evening stroll is complete without a stop at one of the many food stalls that surround every busy area in these cities.

Street after street, stall after stall, you will be greeted by smiling faces and tempting plates of food that urge you to come and sample. Smothered with spicy and tangy chutneys, yogurt, an array of spices and fixings, each teases and pleases your palate. My fondest memories of my days spent in India involve sneaking out of the house on the pretext of an evening walk while I actually skipped to the hawker next door and enjoyed deep-fried savory chips made from flour and drowned in tangy yogurt and sweet tamarind chutney, running through the rain to buy a big batch of jalapeño fritters, and waiting in long lines to savor a bite of the best kebabs I had ever tasted.

So naturally now, with a kitchen of my own, I like to recreate these flavors. As a newlywed, I had decided to host my very own party for the first time. To keep things simple, I thought a get-together of a few close Indian friends over an array of some of our favorite finger foods would be a good place to start. As I sat down to decide on a menu, it occurred to me that I could either go the traditional route and serve the classic tikkas with lots of spicy chutney or I could kick it up a notch and create a menu inspired by classic flavors and dressed up to suit our modern tastes. When it comes to fusion cooking, I am always one to experiment with East and West. Somehow the exotic flavors of the East combined with the elegance of the West brings me the best of both worlds – almost like a perfect marriage.

I finally decided on a menu that included tiny spiced potato parcels (a twist on the classic samosa, made even simpler by using ready-made frozen pastry sheets), curried wings (delectable chicken wings spiced with traditional spices), onion fritters, and my very special tandoori chicken pops (breaded chicken fingers marinated in yogurt). I also laid out a varied selection of dips, ranging from chutneys to sauces. As we went through the evening sharing our wedding memories, I realized I had to excuse myself a couple of times to refill the platters. Soon there was nothing left to fill them with. And thankfully, by that time, my guests seemed to be content and ready to move on to something sweet.

As we savored the last spoonful of rice pudding lightly spiced with cardamom, I knew that the evening was about to come to a successful end. My friends had smiles on their faces and stomachs filled with delicious food. Not too bad for a first-timer. Maybe next time I might take it a step further. I'm thinking a grand Mughlai feast, complete with rich curries and buttery naans.

Any takers?

Variations on familiar Indian favorites Spiced Potato Parcels

Preparation time: 30 minutes. Total cooking time: 20 minutes. Makes 24 bite-size parcels.

2 large potatoes, peeled, boiled, and mashed
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon red chili powder
¼ teaspoon garam masala
Salt, to taste
12 large spring-roll wrappers, cut in half to make 24 strips
Light cooking oil for deep frying

Mix mashed potatoes with spices and set aside to cool.

Put about a teaspoon of the potato filling on a cut-in-half spring-roll wrapper. Fold it up to form a tiny parcel. Seal the edges with water. Set aside on a platter covered with a damp cloth to keep them from drying out. Repeat for remaining strips.

Heat oil in a deep-sided pan and deep-fry parcels a few at a time so as not to crowd the pan. Remove parcels when they turn golden. Drain excess oil by placing parcels on paper towels. Serve warm with ketchup or chutney of choice.

Tandoori Chicken Pops

Preparation time: 1 hour. Total cooking time: 20 to 30 minutes. Makes eight to 10 pops.

2 chicken breasts, cut into thin strips
1 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
½ teaspoon red chili powder
½ teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon coriander powder
Salt, to taste
Light cooking oil for deep frying
2 cups white flour
Bamboo skewers
Coriander or mint chutney

Mix together yogurt, lemon juice, ginger-garlic paste, spices, and salt. Marinade chicken strips in mixture and allow it to sit in the fridge for at least an hour or so. For best results, marinate overnight.

Heat oil in a deep-sided pan, large enough to fry three to four strips at a time. Dip each strip into plain flour, coating well on all sides, before adding them to hot oil. Fry till crisp and golden on all sides. Drain on paper towels, poke through with bamboo skewers, and serve with coriander or mint chutney.

You can avoid deep frying by simply grilling the marinated, skewered chicken strips on a hot grill till tender and done.

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